Specter of McCain haunts Bush, Gore on campaign finance reform
Both candidates push issue to back burner
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- With just days to go before the 2000 general election, the casual observer of the presidential campaigns of Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore might reach the conclusion that there is some sort of gentleman's agreement in place between the two on the issue of campaign finance reform.
That hypothetical agreement may look something like this: Whatever you say, whatever you do, don't do anything stupid to wake up John McCain.
With the fallen Republican presidential contender and Arizona senator settled back in his chair at the head of the Senate Commerce Committee, the last thing either Bush or Gore would seem to need in this final streak toward November 7 would be to tease a drowsy grizzly bear enough to get him in front of a bank of microphones and television cameras. There could be hell to pay.
Bush, who has forged a shaky, detached partnership with McCain that would seem to be based almost entirely on McCain's loyalty to his party, could have more to lose than Gore by making the wrong gesture at the wrong time. Gore, meanwhile, has pledged to pick up the reform banner from McCain by ramming the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill through Congress as his first order of legislative business.
Gore's credibility could be called into question, while Bush could stand to lose touch with the forces that propelled him to the front of the 2000 GOP class should he express any sense of wanting to severely alter the current system.
McCain has engineered the campaign finance train through the last three congressional sessions. He has opened up deep rifts with his Republican Senate brethren, all in the name of ripping special interest money and influence out of the democratic process.
He and Russell Feingold, the mild-mannered Democratic senator from Wisconsin, have tried time and again to get their bill to reform the finance system through the Senate. Despite their constant revisions initiated to make the bill more palatable to its most staunch opponents, they have found no success.
The first versions of the bill would have banned political parties from raising and spending "soft money" for party-building activities, including so-called issue advocacy advertisements -- ads outwardly designed to promote a position on a key election-year issue, but more often thinly veiled promotions of a specific candidate.
Soft money stands at the center of the long-winded campaign finance debate. These contributions are made directly to the major party organizations. They are not regulated by federal law, and there is no limit on the amount that may be contributed.
Donations directly to individual campaigns -- or "hard money" -- are strictly limited and watched closely by the Federal Election Commission.
Sen. John McCain gives a speech on campaign finance during his presidential campaign
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Senate Republicans have consistently batted the bill down, arguing that the system that feeds money into campaigns for national office is perhaps one of the nation's most solid examples of untouched free speech. Corporations who donate soft money, some of these Republicans say, have just as much right under the Constitution to speak their piece as do the individuals who make small donations to their local lawmakers.
McCain and Feingold have tweaked the bill on numerous occasions, most recently softening their language on issue ads, but the result on the Senate floor has remained the same. A similar version debated in the House actually passed -- surprising, given the legions of core conservatives in the ranks of that chamber's majority Republicans.
McCain parlayed his disgust with the system, and the intransigence of his colleagues, into a spectacular early-season run for the White House. His "tell it like it is" comportment and continuous pledges to boot special interests from the halls of Congress brought him a 19-point primary victory over Bush in New Hampshire at the beginning of February. But the senator eventually was overcome by a Bush resurgence -- fueled by issue advocacy advertisements, of all things.
The Texas governor outright opposes the McCain-Feingold bill, but has expressed an interest in banning soft money contributions from trade and labor unions as well as some corporate soft money donations. Citing First Amendment concerns, he would not further restrict individual donations.
A total ban on soft money, Bush has argued, would be tantamount to "unilateral disarmament" against the Democrats, whose fund-raising ledgers could fare a little better in the absence of such donations.
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Additionally, Bush has voiced opposition to any curbs on issue advocacy ads, arguing he would be more than happy to preserve the rights of individuals and groups, from "the Christian Coalition to the Sierra Club, to run issue ads without government restriction."
Bush supporters used issue ads to great affect against McCain in New York in the days prior to the Super Tuesday national primary, when 30-second spots funded by a low profile organization began to show up on the Empire State's airwaves that claimed McCain had worked to defeat legislation in the Senate that would have broadened funding for breast cancer research and treatment.
That high profile use of issue ads, in part, led Congress to pass legislation requiring organizational disclosure of so-called 527s, those advocacy groups that form at times, merely to run ads intended to tarnish a particular candidate.
Bush has said he would like to routinely raise the limits on regulated contributions to federal candidates by adjusting periodically for inflation. He would also raise the current limit on individual contributions from $2,000 to $3,400.
Bush knows how powerful these individual contributions can be if they are solicited effectively. Most of his primary run was financed by such donations. He rejected offers of federal campaign money through the early months of the 2000 election cycle.
On more diverse campaign finance issues, Bush favors efforts by Republicans in the House to implement "paycheck protection" legislation, which would prevent labor unions from spending membership dues on political activity without written permission from individual union members. Republicans have targeted unions for years -- most central union organizations routinely support Democratic candidates, to the occasional consternation of some rank-and-file members.
Gore loathes the idea, often referring to paycheck protection as "paycheck deception."
Bush would also prohibit federally registered lobbyists from making contributions to members of Congress when Congress is in session, though contributions during a recess would be allowed.
Bush has remained relatively silent on the campaign finance issues since the beginning of the summer, and for the most part, so has McCain.
McCain made one attempt last July to paint Bush as a reformer, telling attendees at the Shadow Convention, which ran parallel to the GOP National Convention in Philadelphia, that Bush took reform seriously.
"We are the beneficiaries of a campaign finance system that is nothing more than an elaborate influence-peddling scheme in which both parties conspire to stay in office by selling the country to the highest bidder," McCain said.
"I think it's quite clear that (Bush is) the candidate who offers change and that the vice president is the candidate of the status quo -- and, as many people know, I don't care much for the status quo," he told Shadow Convention attendees.
The proclamation was met with such derision and catcalls so fierce that McCain hasn't since made mention of the same sentiment.
The Arizona senator, battling a purported case of bad shellfish, showed up in Bangor, Maine, on Oct. 20 to lend his support to the Republican ticket.
He skipped a planned appearance with Bush in a place where the Republican hopeful really could have used the help -- Manchester, New Hampshire -- earlier in the day.
In Bangor, McCain said Bush would "restore honor and integrity to the White House," but McCain made no mention of his own quest for reforms, and how Bush might honor those wishes. During a lesser-noticed speech on the campus of New Hampshire's Dartmouth college earlier in the week, however, McCain said he is a reformer at his core, and would stay so. The message: He's watching, and he's taking notes.
Gore is a little more willing to discuss campaign finance. But he bears so much baggage as he declares his support for the McCain-Feingold bill that if he presses the issue too effectively before November, he opens himself up to characterizations of hypocrisy.
Piled atop the vice president's pledge to sign the McCain-Feingold bill is his call for publicly financed campaigns. Gore would create a "Democracy Endowment" -- a non-partisan government account into which individuals and corporations could make a 100-percent tax deductible contribution to fund House and Senate general election campaigns.
Interest and returns from the fund, expected to reach $7.1 billion in seven years, would finance candidates who agree to accept no other funds for the general election. The fund would be managed by a board of trustees appointed by the president and approved by the Senate.
Bush has said he would fight public campaign financing tooth and nail, calling Gore's proposal a "taxpayer-financed government takeover of campaigns."
The vice president opposes raising individual contribution limits, as Bush has proposed, and he supports McCain's newer proposal to require outside groups that broadcast issue ads within 60 days of an election to disclose their donors.
In addition, stations that air independent issue ads would be required by the Federal Communications Commission to give free and equal airtime to candidates running for office. Broadcasters could avoid the requirement by not running issue ads.
That language showed up in the latest version of the McCain-Feingold bill earlier this year.
Gore has also called for free airtime for candidates, urging broadcasters to provide every candidate for federal office five minutes of free airtime a night in the final 30 days before an election.
He would also require increased disclosure of all lobbying activities, including the names of officials to whom lobbyists have contributed, and the specific meetings that have attended to discuss legislation. Lobbyists would have to report their activity on the Internet monthly instead of quarterly.
Gore is, at best, a crippled standard-bearer for campaign finance reform, and he readily acknowledged as much at the Democratic National Convention over the summer.
The vice president has been the focus of Justice Department and congressional scrutiny for his role in the 1996 Clinton-Gore re-election effort. He has been accused of placing fund-raising calls from his White House office -- accusations to which he responded with his embarrassing "no controlling legal authority" rationalization. And he has been accused of knowingly attending an illegal fund-raising event at a California Buddhist temple that year.
To head off direct connections by the opposition between his pledge to implement reforms and these and other past mistakes, Gore has often tried to remind voters that he has made errors in judgment, and wishes to atone for them.
He has wrapped his calls for reform into a convenient package that includes his assaults on corporate special interests -- big pharmaceutical concerns and the oil industry, for example -- while trying framing his campaign of being "for the people," while Bush's is "for the powerful."
Something obvious about campaign finance needs to be repeated here: Nothing will happen on it this year, no matter who is elected president.
"Whoever is elected to Congress and the presidency is going to have a satchel full of political IOUs to deliver on."
It's quite likely nothing will be accomplished in the 107th Congress either, barring a blitz of reform sentiment through both parties the likes of which has never been seen or imagined.
"Whoever is elected to Congress and the presidency is going to have a satchel full of political IOUs to deliver on," said Larry Makinson, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics.
"We're going to be keeping track of those IOUs, who they are to, and what is being done about them," Makinson said of his organization, which posts painfully detailed reports of the deal-making and money-changing on its Web site, www.opensecrets.org.
"There are two ways of looking at campaign finance," Makinson said. "What are the candidates' positions on reform? And, what are they doing for the people who paid the bills for their election?
"For Congress and the president, because they have had to make so much money to get elected, their options to implement reform are limited and probably not politically feasible."
In other words, to drag out a tired but concisely appropriate adage, best not to bite the hands that feed.
And those spoon-feeding hands can be quite generous. In fact, the spoons used for small contributions can be replaced with backhoes when the right event presents itself.
Witness this: In May of this year, the Republicans and Democrats held back-to-back fund-raisers in Washington that raised well over $40 million dollars in just two nights -- $26.5 million for the Democrats, $21.3 million for the Republicans.
Gore appeared with President Clinton at the Democratic event and called for a ban on the very sort of donations that were being raised that evening. Bush had no problem appearing at his own event, where finance reform didn't come up once.
Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21, a public advocacy group that seeks to reduce the influence of money in politics, reacted angrily to the May events, saying at the time, "This is a political money arms race with no end in sight," he said, "involving huge, corrupting contributions that are extraordinarily dangerous for the democratic system."
Makinson and Werthheimer are among the growing chorus of voices that still echoes throughout this political wilderness. More insistent calls come from the likes of Green Party contender Ralph Nader, whose outright damnation of big corporations is certain to keep him from ever sitting behind the president's Oval Office desk.
But McCain, with his magnificent ability to capture the attention of a broad coalition of disgruntled voters, still has a chance to sit in the Oval Office. And he's waiting intently to see what happens between 2000 and 2004.